Spring brings one of the year’s best opportunities to tackle big, belligerent bronzebacks—something veteran bass pro Kevin VanDam knows well. “Smallmouths are most active when water temperatures are between 50 and 60 degrees,” he says. “In most northern waters, 55 is the magic mark. Give me a sunny spring day and a wind of about 15 miles per hour, and I know bass will be feeding heavily. It’s a great time to be on the water.”
Even under the best conditions, however, finding the fish can be a challenge, VanDam admits. “Smallmouths are often here today and gone tomorrow,” he says. “While largemouth bass are ambush predators with comparatively small home ranges, smallmouths are roaming hunters. On some waters, they may have home areas of 20 miles or more. It’s no surprise then that they usually require some searching.”
Here’s a list of four crucial rules that VanDam follows to locate and land trophy smallmouth bass now.
1. Target clear water and current to find bass.
“Smallies are sight feeders, so they’re less active in dirty water or near weedbeds,” VanDam says. “Look for them along rock or pebble shorelines where they can hunt crayfish or baitfish. As the water warms in a lake, any type of current will draw them, so a feeder stream is an excellent starting point.”
2. Know the forage species smallmouths want to eat.
Smallmouths love crayfish, but these aren’t the only item on the menu. “They often key in on yellow perch, shad, alewives, or smelt—and they can be as selective as trout. Knowing the forage species and their seasonal movements on a lake or river is invaluable.” Good sources for such information include local tackle shops and regional fisheries biologists.
3. Use searching lures to locate active fish.
VanDam likes to cover a lot of water until he finds the bass, then he settles in. “My favorite searching lures are spinnerbaits, crankbaits, and jerkbaits,” he says. “Once I’m into bass, I’ll fish more methodically. Day in and day out, a salty, fat tube on a jighead will produce some really nice fish.”
4. Use big baits for big bass.
Because the average bronzeback isn’t as large as the average largemouth, most fishermen think they need to downsize their baits. That’s a fundamental mistake, according to VanDam. “If you want to catch really big smallmouths, throw a magnum crankbait such as the Zara Spook, or work a full-size jig. My brother holds the Ohio state record for smallmouth bass, a 9-pound 5-ounce fish that he caught with a big jigging spoon.”
One more tip: Keep your taxidermist’s phone number handy.